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Wood storks and egrets fill the branches of bare trees along the Woody Pond rookery at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Harris Neck, Ga. (AP Photo/Savannah Morning News, Richard Burkhart)

Georgians work to protect wood storks

June 08, 2013 at 11:47 AM

The Associated Press

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Dot Bambach and Mary Ellen Urbansky keep regular tabs on the biggest wood stork maternity ward north of Florida, making a 60-foot vertical climb to do so.

"It's not a race," warns Bambach before she grabs the first rung of the observation tower at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

No worry, gravity enforces the rule.

Bambach, a retired banker and top-notch birder who lives at The Landings, and Urbansky, a biotechnician intern from Rincon, go slowly and wear gloves to protect their hands from the inevitable vulture guano that clings to the caged ladder.

From the viewing platform, the cypress trees below look like bird hotels. Wood storks, with their 6-foot wingspans, need the penthouse to maneuver into place.

The great egrets and anhingas nest below them on the upper floors. Smaller wading birds, including snowy and cattle egrets, plus three kinds of herons — tri-colored, blacked-crowned night and little blue — fill in near the basement.

It's loud. Chicks of all the species call to their parents. All but the wood storks call back. These massive birds are voiceless as adults.

Bambach and Urbansky waste no time getting to work. Early in the season, Urbansky mapped out the trees closest to the tower, giving each a number.

The women's job is to record what's happening in each wood stork nest in 32 trees. On this bright May day, the trees are thick with wood stork adults, chicks and eggs.

Peering into a spotting scope, Bambach calls out her data:

"Ten A is one egg, two adults standing. Ten B is two eggs, two adults standing."

The women continue until the four dozen or so nests they're monitoring have been updated.

At times, it takes all their patience to outwait a nesting mother.

"Stand up, stand up," Bambach urges, willing a bird to move aside so she can see what it's protecting.

When the bird finally does stand, it reveals three eggs. They start out white, but after a few days in the stork's not-so-sterile abode, they look like little potatoes.

A nearby nest has babies, which resemble nothing so much as miniature pteradactyls.

They're grayish-blue when they hatch because their down is so sparse you see only skin, said Bambach, who's witnessed babies pecking their way out of an egg and sitting momentarily in the nest with a half eggshell on its head like a cartoon chick on an Easter card. As their feathers come in, the babies turn white. Their beaks grow into comically long shnozzes.

Harris Neck is important to wood storks for two main reasons.

First, it's a big, well-protected colony. Other colonies can lose a whole season to drought. But Harris Neck's man-made pond is pump-fed so it never dries up.

That means alligators, which refuge manager Kimberly Hayes affectionately calls the mafia, are omnipresent. Their protection racket costs the storks an occasional fallen chick, but it ensures the colony's success.

"People don't realize alligators are critical," Bambach said. "They keep raccoons out of the trees. If it's a dry summer and the alligators leave and raccoons come in, the whole colony collapses. Here we have a well and a pump. If it's a dry year, we pump to get the water up."

Along with adding to the numbers of endangered wood storks, which are doing well enough to be considered for uplisting to threatened status, Harris Neck also provides oodles of data to wood stork researchers.

Last year, Urbansky, along with Bambach and a few other dedicated volunteers, was able to estimate that average nest productivity was 1.6 fledglings per nest, down slightly from the two previous years, in large part because tropical storm Debby killed a number of chicks. The colony fledged out an estimated 760 chicks.

It's that repurposed fire tower that gives Harris Neck an edge over other research sites.

"We're the only place that gets this kind of data," Urbansky said. "Other places don't get to go in and get as much data — once or twice a month they get counts. Even at the Jacksonville Zoo, where they have a small colony, they don't have the time to go in and do a count."

The tower makes all that data available, as long as researchers like Bambach and Urbansky are willing to climb it.


Information from: Savannah Morning News,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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